Breaking down the NFL’s new start
Breaking down the NFL’s new start

The NFL will have a new starting pattern next season. Here’s how the “hybrid” kickoff will work.

I’m setting up: Under the new arrangement, the kicker will line up alone in his half of the field and kick from the traditional spot, on the 35-yard line. The remaining 21 players will line up at the opposite end of the field. The remaining 10 players on the kicking team will start at the receiving team’s 40-yard line, separated initially by only five yards from the receiving team’s blockers. At least nine of the receiving team’s 11 players will line up either on their 35-yard line or within five yards of it, in what is called the “setting zone.” At least seven of those players must be on the 35-yard line. The host team is allowed a maximum of two returners.

Requirements: The kick must land between the goal line and the 20-yard line. To encourage returns, kicks in the end zone will be severely penalized; the ball will be spotted on the 30 yard line. Kicks that hit the end zone, roll into the end zone and are downed there will be spotted at the 20 yard line. Kicks from the touchdown zone will be seen as kicks out of bounds at the 40-yard line. A shot that lands in the landing zone must be returned.

Action: The kicking team’s potential players and blockers lined up in the receiving team’s set-up area may not move until a returner touches the ball or it hits the ground. After a returner catches the ball, the new kickoff pattern is designed to resemble a line of scrimmage play.

Return rate: Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, one of the designers of the new kickoff format, said at the NFL’s annual meetings that the league projects that 55 to 60 percent of kickoffs will be returned.

That projection would be 85 to 90 percent, Fassel said, if the rule required the ball to be spotted at the 35-yard line for a touchback, creating a greater deterrent for the kicking team to send the ball into the end zone. The contest committee changed the proposal Sunday to make it the 30-yard line.

After the new rule is in effect for one season, the league can change it to move the spot to the 35-yard line to further increase returns.

Outside shots: Offside kicks will be allowed only in the fourth quarter and only by the trailing team. That team must declare their intent and the setup will revert to the traditional starting lineup.

Under the new rule, surprise onside kicks are not possible. But there were only two surprising onside kicks in the entire league last season.

The Philadelphia Eagles offered a fourth-and-20 alternative to the onside kick that would have allowed the team to retain possession by converting a fourth-and-20 offensive play from their own 20-yard line. The owners did not approve of this proposal. Rich McKay, Atlanta Falcons CEO and chairman of the contest committee, said he would like to see the fourth-and-20 proposal revisited next year.

Field Position: The average starting field position for the receiving team is expected to be around the 28- or 29-yard line, according to New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who was involved in designing the new rule. That compares to last season’s 25.2-yard line.

Kicking stick: If the ball blows twice off the tee on a windy day, the kicker will be permitted to use a kick stick to hold the ball for the kickoff. One of the officials will be responsible for raising the kick stick immediately after the ball is kicked so that it is not on the field during the return.

Enforcement of penalties: Any touchdown penalty will be assessed on the conversion and cannot be carried over to the kickoff. A conversion penalty can be carried over to the kick-off, in which case only the location of the kick will change. The setup area and landing area will remain the same.

Duration: The new rule was proposed and ratified in just one year. So the competition committee, the league and the owners will have to revisit the issue next offseason.

List Branches: The search for kicks is back again. The Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal with free agent Cordarrelle Patterson just hours after ratifying the new format. He is the NFL’s all-time leader with nine career kickoff returns.

Teams could reconsider the size and speed of the players they put on the field for their kickoff coverage and kickoff return units. Some observers said there could be pressure for teams to get an extra roster spot or an extra active player slot on game days, given that the total number of injuries occurring on kickoffs is likely to increase. Even if the injury rate is reduced to match that of a fight game, as predicted, the expected large increase in the total number of live games (with many more kickoffs returned) will likely result in a higher number of injuries.

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